In my recent talks, I’ve been saying things like “there are tens or hundreds of thousands of new novels published every year, and I just can’t read all of them.” Matt Kirschenbaum says this demonstrates a deplorable lack of initiative in our younger scholars, and he’s probably right. But is my count reasonable? I pretty much made it up, so I thought I should check.
But how do you do that? Google could probably tell you how many volumes are in their metadata database, along with their years of publication, but how many of those are novels or other works of prose fiction? Wikipedia claims to know the totals for “books” broken down by country, though their numbers are oldish and taken from diverse sources.
If we can live with U.S.-only numbers, and if we’re mostly interested in English-language fiction, we can consult R.R. Bowker’s publishing statistics (they’re the people who run Books in Print). From them we learn that there were 407,000 books published in 2007 (the last year for which final numbers are available), a total that includes 123,000 “on-demand, short run, and other unclassified” titles. Of the 274,000 classified titles, 43,000 are “fiction,” a category that includes “strictly adult novels (including graphic novels) and short story collections.” (There are separate categories for anthologies, literary criticism, poetry, drama, etc. Oh, and “adult” is opposed to “juvenile,” not a synonym for porn.) If the same ratio holds for the unclassified category, we’d have another 19,000 novel-like entries, for a total of 62,000.
The U.S. isn’t the only (predominately) English-language book market in the world, of course; Britain’s is about the same size, Canada and Australia are significant, and there are many English-language novels published elsewhere. But there’s also redundancy in some of the titles shared between markets, and a portion of the new titles are only new editions or bindings of previously-released texts. (As an aside, I wonder how many of the books published annually ever exist in more than one edition? I’d bet it’s a much smaller number than our scholarly experience with canonical-ish texts would suggest. I also wonder how many new U.S. titles are in languages other than English.) Accounting for all of those factors is more work than I want to do at the moment, though I’d love to hear what other people know about them.
In the meantime let’s assume, conservatively, that the global total is on the order of twice the U.S. number. In that case it seems pretty safe to say there are around 100,000 new English-language works of long-form prose fiction published globally each year. That’s a ballpark number, but I don’t see any reason to believe that it’s off by more than a factor of about two, and it’s certainly of the right order of magnitude. Conclusion: I can go on using my line about the number of books I’m not reading.
[Update, 29 September 2010: See also this follow-up post on numbers from the UK. And note that Bowker has since released figures that include 2009; the major story there is that “nontraditional” volumes (reprints of public-domain classics and print-on-demand, mostly) have exploded in the last few years, now far outnumbering (by about 3:1) the mostly flat traditional volumes. Sales are another matter, of course.]
[Update, 30 July 2012: I see there’s been some bit rot at Bowker. 2011 numbers (with prior year figures) are now available. In general, this info is released annually via a press release in May or June for the previous year. If a specific Bowker link is dead, search their site for something like “publishing industry” or “publishing output” and the most recently past year (2011, etc.)]